Here you will find commentaries on the meanings of verses and stories from Laozi, Zhuangzi and other early Taoists regarding their philosophies and practices. At the end of each month, all of the commentaries for that month will be posted in our BLOG.

AUGUST, 2019

08/16/2019

Let’s return now to Laozi’s Tao de Ching. Today we shall take a look at Chapter 9, a very important chapter that illustrates one of the main principles of Taoism. Next, to Wu Wei, moderation and knowing when to stop are vital to most sincere Taoists.

“A bow that is stretched to its fullest capacity may certainly snap.
A sword that is tempered to its very sharpest may easily be broken.
A house that is full of jade and gold cannot remain secure for long.
One who proudly displays his wealth invites trouble.
Therefore, resign from a high position when your mission is complete.
This is the Universal Way of a life of deep virtue.”

Translation by Ni Hua-Ching, 1995.

Again Laozi is telling us to use moderation in all things, and, above all, know when to stop. Whether it’s food or drink. Moderation means don’t try to fill yourself to capacity. Stop when you are 70% or 80% full, not 100 or beyond.

Whether it’s jade or gold, jewelry, furniture, paintings,cars don’t go overboard. Whether it’s your body or your home, instead of looking stately and refined, it will look garish, opulent – two words that are synonymous with “ugly.” Did you ever see a person who has a large ring on every finger? If so, then you know what I mean by garish, opulent, ugly. Furthermore, when you go overboard, you take away from items that look truly exquisite when given prominence, but are totally lost in a sea of acuterments and are appear no different from a hoarder’s place littered with junk. Not to mention the fact, that such a display of wealth, like Laozi says, invites trouble.

The same is true of money. People who hoard money and work their butts off to make deals and make more money are truly pathetic. Whether it’s money they constantly seek or praise or fame, the result is the same, a sadly pathetic, self-centered nerd. It isn’t wealth, per se, that is damaging. It is seeking wealth for the sole purpose of self-aggrandizement that destroys love, friendships and other relationships. There are many wealthy financiers that have amassed fortunes and have established foundations to help others share in their wealth. They regularly pay their fair share of taxes and give to charities. So, here it is the intent that makes seeking wealth a detriment or a worthwhile activity. By asking the Universe, the Tao, how may I serve and how can the wealth I earn benefit others, your work and your financial acumen become tools for the Tao and the Te to distribute and spread the wealth to the rest of mankind.

Remember, none of this is truly yours, not your money, your possessions, your businesses.not even your very life. All of this belongs to the Tao. The Tao is responsible for everything in the Universe and beyond.

Next up is Chapter 33 of the Tao Te Ching, a verse of comparisons and contrasts that, like Chapter 9, expound further on the Taoist lifestyle.

08/22/2019

As promised, Chapter 33 of Laozi’s Tao Te Ching: Self-Denial versus Self-Criticism.

He who knows others is knowledgeable.
He who knows himself is wise.
He who conquers others is physically strong.
He who conquers himself is truly mighty.
He who is contented is rich.
He who acts with persistence has a will.
He who does not lose his root will endure.
He who dies but is not forgotten has longevity.


COMMENTARY: Before I begin, I would like to say that some of you are not going to like this. Perhaps, most of you will not like this. So, I must apologize in advance should I offend anyone.

Many study this chapter and concentrate on the last two lines. Here Keping Wang has translated the very last line correctly as it was written in the oldest versions of the text discovered in the MaWangDui Caves just last century. Prior to those versions, some translators assessed the line differently and combined it with the previous line, building a case for immortality. The translations would be something like “He who keeps to his root will endure and will not perish but remain eternally present.” That would certainly make Laozi roll over in his grave, for he had no uncertainty that death would befall each and every one of us no matter how enlightened. The last two lines are about cultivating one’s “heart,” in other words, one’s daily living, not immortality. Thus, living from one’s “root,” the Tao, will leave a lasting impression on others in one’s everyday affairs, one’s writings, one’s art, friendships and relationships, and on nature, itself, which, in a way, is a form of immortality.

The true emphasis in this chapter is not on the ending but on the beginning, the first four lines. Despite many variations, the general semantics of these lines for the most part have been kept intact. However, Laozi’s true intent has been confused. Martial artists, in general, and tai chi and qigong players, more specifically, are partly responsible for this distortion, not to mention meditation gurus. There is a line in the Tai Chi Classics: “I know you, but you don’t know me.” This line generally means that you know where your opponent’s center is at all times, but he/she does not know where yours is because you are able to hide it quite skillfully. Well, this is not the “know” Laozi had in mind. In fact, he would say that you don’t truly know your opponent or yourself.

Laozi here is emphasizing that deep inward knowledge that goes to the very heart of our character. Back in his day, life was complicated enough. People were not so easy to discern. They by no means wore their hearts on their sleeves but kept it hidden deep underneath all the layers with innuendo, deceit, selfishness, not only hidden from the world but hidden from themselves by a facade of benevolence and generosity. In this case, if one were to somehow discern the true character of others, he/she would be considered quite knowledgeable, truly intelligent.

So, by “knowing,” Laozi is referring to discerning one’s true character, ours or others. And, as difficult as that was in his day, imagine the complexity and illusiveness in our modern world. We have so many technical innovations to hide from and hide behind that it is virtually impossible to discern a person’s true character. Add to these, the psychological shadings, the self-denials and the repressions, the Freudian concepts of infantile sexuality, libido, the Oedipal complex, transference or the Jungian archetypes: the shadow, the wise old man, the child, the mother, the maiden, and the anima and the animus. Is it any wonder that you need to be a genius to truly know someone? Laozi says that a person who can do that, such as Freud or Jung, is knowledgeable, which means highly intelligent – but not necessarily wise.

Wisdom, on the other hand as Laozi tells us, arises when we are able to dig deeply inside and cut through all the self-denials and buried feelings that we have repressed over the years and truly come to know ourselves. It is not sitting on a mat and taking deep breaths as some meditation gurus advise or visualizing beautiful, calming scenes or vibrating light rays. It is not following your thoughts until they dissipate, leaving your mind empty. It is not your mind that needs to empty. It is your heart, the very core of your being. That is exactly why Laozi says: He who conquers others is physically strong. But…He who conquers himself is truly mighty. 

Emptying and clearing out our hearts requires an enormous amount of intestinal fortitude, persistence, and spiritual strength to cut through all those self-denials and repressed feelings that we have not only hidden from the world but have hidden from ourselves. It requires a supreme act of self-criticism rather than the self-denial we have become used to.  Reciting affirmations and platitudes are nice. Going around feeling you are pure awareness, consciousness or emptiness is just another form of self-denial, one more case of avoidance. None of these things can take the place of self-criticism and deep introspection.

Refusing to accept responsibility is another form of self-denial. Often, we are aware of things that we have done that we are not so proud of. But we shift the blame to others – parents, siblings, teachers, close friends, lovers – as though they were responsible for our actions. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one can force you to do anything unless they are holding a gun to your head. You chose to follow the crowd and do what they were doing. You chose not to be an outcast. Years later, looking back on those actions, we tell ourselves it was not our fault. So emptying the heart is as much about accepting responsibility as it is about plunging into the depths of one’s heart of hearts.

Once you have toughed it out and emptied your heart, then the final four lines of Chapter 33 will fall into place. You will naturally feel contented with what you have. After persisting to empty the heart, you will feel that your will is strong enough to persist in anything. Finally, you will know yourself and, therefore, know your root, which is the Tao, and that will endure for the rest of your life. Everything you do will be in harmony with the Tao and Nature, thus leaving a legacy that will endure far beyond a long life.

I hope this commentary helps you to better understand Chapter 33 and what needs to be done.

Until next time…Peace.

JULY, 2019

07/03/2019

We start July off with the first two verses of Chapter 47 from Laozi’s Tao Te Ching. Although most of the accepted translations are consistent, their meaning has certainly been misinterpreted by both Western and Eastern scholars alike.

Chapter 47 begins with:

Without going out-of-doors,
one may know all under Heaven.
Without looking out one’s window,
one may know the Dao of Heaven.


Many Western scholars have called this pure bunk. Taking Laozi quite literally, they wonder how anyone can know everything there is to know. Can a sage tell you who will win the World Series or the Super Bowl? Can he or she know all the answers to the most perplexing questions facing quantum physicists? No, of course not. But Laozi, when he writes all under Heaven, was not referring to mundane, worldly things. To Laozi, all referred to only those things that truly matter.

To illustrate the point, there is a quotation from the great martial artist, Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, which is the Japanese equivalent of Tai Chi. Sensei Ueshiba states: Keep to your Path, and nothing else will matter. When you lose your desire for things that do not matter, you will be free.

To both Ueshiba and Laozi, those things that we see or study or imagine are eye and mind candy – things that do not matter. They are the externals of this world. What matters to a true sage is Li, the Chinese term for Principle.

So, when Laozi uses the term all, he is referring to the principles that have created and set in motion all under Heaven. If you understand the principles underlying matter, you can infer what will happen. That creator and master of the entire cosmos is, of course, the Tao, and one of the Tao’s underlying principles is its constancy. Because the Tao is constant, it is possible for us who live in the present and an ancient sage, who lived 2500 years ago, to know how things were at the beginning to time without stepping out-of-doors.

Wang Bi, who commented on both the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching, some 2000 years ago in the 3rd Century wrote: The Tao has its great constancy and Principle has its perfection, so hold on to the Tao of old to preside over what exists now. Although we live in the present, it is possible for one to know how things were at the beginning of time.

Another underlying principle is the congruence of all things under Heaven.  No matter how disparate beings are, no matter how varied our paths in life, we all come to the same end. Therefore, commenting on Section 5 in the Commentary on Appended Phrases, Part Two of the I Ching, Wang Bi writes: The Master said: “What does the world have to think and deliberate about? As all in the world ultimately comes to the same end, though the roads to it are different, so there is an ultimate congruence in thought, though there might be hundreds of ways to deliberate about it. So what does the world have to think and deliberate about? (Both Wang Bi quotes were translated by Richard John Lynn.)

There is as well a subtle subtext running through the Tao Te Ching, which is somewhat evident in Chapter 47, that of isolation. Whether one runs off to a mountain cave or shuts himself/herself off in their home, the intent is the same – to isolate oneself from the myriad distractions of society and to develop an inner sense of contentment and quietude. Only then can we hope to unite with the Tao. Zhuangzi, on the other hand, has a completely different attitude. His is a sense that “I live in the world but not of it.”

There is yet another way of looking at Laozi’s remarks in this chapter. Keping Wang, a present day author and commentator on the Tao had this to say regarding Chapter 47: “With more and more people practicing qigong as a form of traditional Chinese breathing with stylized movements for spiritual meditation and as more of its effects have come to be rediscovered, some scholars have come to realize the implications of what Laozi says here.” Wang goes on to mention Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, and how he reached supreme wisdom or enlightenment after sitting under a tree for 49 days. “Since then such notions as ‘inner or heavenly enlightenment for attaining Buddhahood’ have come to be used in Buddhism. Correspondingly, in early Daoism, there are such similar notions as ‘understanding without seeing’ and ‘contemplation in depth’.” 

Here are a couple you can try. This first one is  Bone Marrow Cleansing, Xi Sui Jing.

 

This next one is Qi Gong Breathing from Shaolin Temple Europe

 

07/06/2019

The final two verses of Chapter 47 seemed even more preposterous to Western scholars than the first. However, if one understands the concepts behind Laozi’s opening verses, then these final ones naturally follow.

The further one goes out, the less he will know.

This simply means that one does not live in the One, trusting it and following the Tao, but instead he follows society and places his trust in the many outside. He can never discover the inner principles working the Universe with all the diversified theories, opinions and beliefs floating around outside his door. They will only bring him confusion, not true knowledge.

Thus the sage knows without moving about (in the external world),
Understands without seeing,
Accomplishes without doing.

Here Laozi is basically stating what I have explained above. The sage doesn’t need to run around out in the world or look about to see what sights he can find. Instead, he focuses within where he finds his true nature and thus understands the nature of things without seeking it externally.

This verse also alludes to Taoist meditation, which Keping Wang explained in his commentary on Chapter 47. The early Daoists were quite familiar with meditation and the value of contentment and quietude as were the Rishis of India even before Shakyamuni.

The final line, “Accomplishes without doing,” refers to another subtext that runs all through the Tao Te Ching – Wu Wei – often translated as the practice of non-doing.or non-action. What wu wei really means is take no conscious or deliberate action but instead act spontaneously with the flow of life, the flow of the Tao and not with the urges of an egoic mind.

Speaking of flow, next time we will stay with the Tao Te Ching and look at Chapter 48, which flows naturally from the concepts explained here in Chapter 47.

So, until next time, Be Well and Go with the Flow…

07/11/2019

Like Chapter 47 which proceeds it, Chapter 48 has been misunderstood by some Western scholars. Why would anyone want to pursue the Tao if it makes one lose more and more each day, they ask. So, let’s have a look:

The pursuit of learning means having more each day,
The pursuit of Tao means having less each day.
Having less upon less, one eventually reaches the point where one
takes no action, yet nothing remains undone.

Again, the is typical Laozi, where the statements at first seem rather contradictory. However, upon closer look, we see what the Master intended. If he were, like many self-help gurus, trying to stoke our ambitions and the pursuit of worldly success in the form of greater wealth, position and esteem, then, by all means, one should pursue worldly knowledge. But Laozi’s focus is on our spiritual well-being and eventual discovery of who and what we truly are. 

In Chapter 47, Laozi advised that it was not necessary to go out into the world to learn all you needed to know. One could discover the truth about oneself and the principles underlying the world by staying right at home. So too, in Chapter 48, he tells us that it is not necessary to run off to a university to gain more knowledge in order to live the perfect life. In fact, he suggests that we lose what we know – the concepts, beliefs, opinions and preconceived notions – in order to know the Tao. Thus, it is not a matter of gaining more and more each day but losing more and more until we are at the point of wu wei (non-action) or taking no deliberate action. Laozi realizes that conscious, deliberate action, which is often quite rash and always egocentric, can lead to mistakes and sometimes utter failure. However, no conscious action (wu wei) is spontaneous and natural and will result in nothing being undone.

Laozi then closes the chapter, this way:

One who takes all under Heaven as his charge
always tends to matters without deliberate action.

But when it comes to one who takes conscious action,
Such a one is not worthy to take all Heaven under his charge.

Because one tries to implement actions from his own egocentric pursuits, he is not fit to lead, manage or govern. He is trapped by his own ambitious concerns and enslaves his very soul and eventual salvation with the padlocks and chains of insufferable advancement.

I remember years ago, it was the standard to have a high school diploma for employment. A few years later, a high school education was of much less value. A college degree became the standard. Then a few years later, it was necessary to have an advanced degree, especially a doctorate. So what if you were up to your neck in student debt? Now it’s not only an advanced degree but a dual major, and student loan debt has gone through the roof. 

So, it is not only ourselves, but society as a whole that drives us. Everywhere we turn, we are bombarded with advertisements on billboards, on TV, on the internet. All encouraging us to buy more, to acquire more for our own good, it would seem. But what about our spiritual well-being? How can we acquire that? What price salvation?

Well, in Chapter 48, Laozi gives us the answer. The price is everything we have acquired – not only physically but mentally and emotionally as well. Give up everything that is not essential and especially all those concepts, beliefs and ambitions that keep us chained to the powertrain of society.

Next time we will step away from Laozi and take a look at some of Zhuangzi’s work, particularly a story that follows up Laozi’s admonitions in Chapter 48.

Thank you and Be Well.

 

07/27/2019

From the Zhuangzi, the Book of Zhuangzi

Section EIGHTEEN – PERFECT HAPPINESS

“IS THERE SUCH A THING as perfect happiness in the world or isn’t there? Is there some way to keep yourself alive or isn’t there? What to do, what to rely on, what to avoid, what to stick by, what to follow, what to leave alone, what to find happiness in, what to hate?

This is what the world honors: wealth, eminence, long life, a good name. This is what the world finds happiness in: a life of ease, rich food, fine clothes, beautiful sights, sweet sounds. This is what it looks down on: poverty, meanness, early death, a bad name. This is what it finds bitter: a life that knows no rest, a mouth that gets no rich food, no fine clothes for the body, no beautiful sights for the eye, no sweet sounds for the ear.

People who can’t get these things fret a great deal and are afraid – this is a stupid way to treat the body. People who are rich wear themselves out rushing around on business, piling up more wealth than they could ever use – this is a superficial way to treat the body. People who are eminent spend night and day scheming and wondering if they are doing right – this is a shoddy way to treat the body. Man lives his life in company with worry, and if he lives a long while, till he’s dull and doddering, then he has spent that much time worrying instead of dying, a bitter lot indeed! This is a callous way to treat the body.”

COMMENTARY: I think you get the picture without much explanation from me. Zhuangzi’s message is quite clear: the things we chase after that we think will make us happy cause us much more harm than good. Those who live a life of wealth and luxury usually wear themselves, “piling up more wealth than they could ever use. In the end, our health deteriorates from all the stress and pressure and drives us to an early grave. The outcome, though the path is very different, is the same for those who worry and fret because they do not have the so-called finer things in life. As Zhuangzi intimates perhaps an early death would be much better than a lifetime of worrying. So, whether one is rich or poor it does not matter. In the end it is all the same. The poor struggle and die trying to get what they don’t have. The wealthy struggle and die trying to get even more of what they have, searching and striving constantly for more pleasure and more comfort.

But what about those people we look up to and consider good human beings? Do they ever find true happiness? Let’s hear what Zhuangzi has to say…

“Men of ardor are regarded by the world as good, but their goodness doesn’t succeed in keeping them alive. So I don’t know whether their goodness is really good or not. Perhaps I think it’s good – but not good enough to save their lives. Perhaps I think it’s no good – but still good enough to save the lives of others. So I say, if your loyal advice isn’t heeded, give way and do not wrangle. Tzu-hsu wrangled and lost his body. But if he hadn’t wrangled, he wouldn’t have made a name. Is there really such a thing as goodness or isn’t there?”

COMMENTARY: Here Zhuangzi is speaking of good officers and ministers of the government, “Men of ardor.” like Tzu-hsu. But we can apply this to the politicians, missionaries, doctors and nurses, soldiers and general volunteers and do-gooders of today. Tzu-hsu spoke out against the unjust policy of his sovereign. When his advice wasn’t heeded, he did not stop there as Zhuangzi suggests. Instead he continued to wrangle with his king and was eventually put to death. In the end, he stood up for what he believed in but lost his life. Was the honor he gained by his actions worth it? Did it bring him happiness? What about Mother Teresa in the modern era? Did her years of charitable work bring her happiness? Yes, she helped many, and maybe even saved a few lives. But her personal writings revealed a crisis of belief, her loneliness, her desolation. How should we think about that? Zhuangzi leaves that decision to us…

“What ordinary people do and what they find happiness in – I don’t know whether such happiness is in the end really happiness or not. I look at what ordinary people find happiness in, what they all make a mad dash for, racing around as though they couldn’t stop – they all say they’re happy with it. I’m not happy with it and I’m not unhappy with it. In the end is there really happiness or isn’t there?

I take inaction to be true happiness, but ordinary people think it is a bitter thing. I say: perfect happiness knows no happiness, perfect praise knows no praise. The world can’t decide what is right and what is wrong. And yet inaction can decide this. Perfect happiness, keeping alive – only inaction gets you close to this!”

COMMENTARY: Actually, that is pretty good advice. Now I must remind you, as I mentioned in my earlier comments on Laozi’s Tao Te Ching, by “inaction” Zhuangzi is not speaking about no-action, but rather no deliberate, premeditated action, no scheming day and night and wondering if you are doing the right thing and how it could turn out or what could go wrong. Instead, he means “ziran” natural, spontaneous action, action which is initiated by nature and the natural Way of things. Then Zhuangzi concludes…

“Let me try putting it this way. The inaction of Heaven is its purity, the inaction of earth is its peace. So the two inactions combine and all things are transformed and brought to birth. Wonderfully, mysteriously, there is no place they come out of. Mysteriously, wonderfully, they have no sign. Each thing minds its business and all grow up out of inaction. So I say, Heaven and earth do nothing and there is nothing that is not done. Among men, who can get hold of this inaction?”

COMMENTARY: If this sounds familiar, it should. Zhuangzi is reminding us of Laozi’s advice in chapter 37 of his Tao De Ching: “The Tao invariably takes no action. And yet there is nothing left undone.” And again in chapter 38: “The man of the superior De (Virtue, Character) takes no action. And thus nothing will be left undone.”

More from the Zhuangzi next time.

 

07/30/2019

The next two stories are from section 18 of the Zhunagzi

“Once a sea bird alighted in the suburbs of the Lu capital. The marquis of Lu escorted it to the ancestral temple, where he entertained it, performing the Nine Shao music for it to listen to and presenting it with the meat of the T’ai-lao sacrifice to feast on. But the bird only looked dazed and forlorn, refusing to eat a single slice of meat or drink a cup of wine, and in three days it was dead. This is to try to nourish a bird with what would nourish you instead of what would nourish a bird. If you want to nourish a bird with what nourishes a bird, then you should let it roost in the deep forest, play among the banks and islands, float on the rivers and lakes, eat mudfish and minnows, follow the rest of the flock in flight and rest, and live any way it chooses. A bird hates to hear even the sound of human voices, much less all that hubbub and to-do. Try performing the Hsien-ch’ih and Nine Shao music in the wilds around Lake Tung-t’ing when the birds hear it they will fly off, when the animals hear it they will run away, when the fish hear it they will dive to the bottom. Only the people who hear it will gather around to listen. Fish live in water and thrive, but if men tried to live in water they would die. Creatures differ because they have different likes and dislikes. Therefore the former sages never required the same ability from all creatures or made them all do the same thing. Names should stop when they have expressed reality, concepts of right should be founded on what is suitable. This is what it means to have command of reason, and good fortune to support you.”

COMMENTARY: The moral of this story is fairly easy to see. I could some it up in one brief cliche: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” The point is everything, man, beast, bird or fish, should live according to its nature. Though we are all equal, we are not all the same. In fact, each one of us is different from everyone else. We speak different languages, eat different foods, read different books, enjoy different sports, different music, practice different religions. Realizing this will help each of us accept what others are doing according to their nature, not ours. And acceptance has a tremendous healing effect on us and on those around us. Just remember the title of that popular Ray Stevens’ song: “Everything is Beautiful…in its own way.”

 

This next one has a key lesson for all martial artists…

Chi Hsing-tzu was training gamecocks for the king. After ten days the king asked if they were ready.

“Not yet. They’re too haughty and rely on their nerve.”

Another ten days and the king asked again.

“Not yet. They still respond to noises and movements.”

Another ten days and the king asked again.

“Not yet. They still look around fiercely and are full of spirit.”
Another ten days and the king asked again.

“They’re close enough. Another cock can crow and they show no sign of change. Look at them from a distance and you’d think they were made of wood. Their virtue is complete. Other cocks won’t dare face them, but will turn and run.”

The true warrior must drop all emotionality before they get into the ring. They need to let their competitive nature take over and drive them, not their wills or their their desires to win or the fear of losing face. All of these must be dissolved until only their fearless nature is reached. The same is true for sages as well. They must drop all emotionality and all worldly desires. Like a sculptor cutting away at marble, chipping off chunks and pieces here and there until the correct image appears, all must be cut away until one’s De (Virtue or True Character) is reached.